Posted by: Bill von Achen | October 7, 2011

The Passing of an Innovator

Innovation has the power to transform our world in ways we can’t even imagine. In reading the hundreds of published tributes to Steve Jobs following his passing last week, we are reminded of the many ways in which his work has changed our lives, from how we use computers (graphical interfaces and the mouse), to the way we buy and listen to music (iTunes and the iPod) or access books, newspapers and magazines (the iPad), and even our experience at the movies (Pixar and Toy Story).

But this week’s posting is not about Jobs, whom we wrote about in late August following the announcement of his decision to step down from the helm of Apple. Instead, I’d like to share with you the story of another innovator from another era, who passed away in early September, and whose work possibly transformed our world as fundamentally as did Jobs.

His name was Keith Tantlinger, another California native and the son of a citrus grower in Orange, California. Tantlinger earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley during the Great Depression of the 1930s, eventually landing a job at the Douglas Aircraft Company during World War II. By the 1950s, Tantlinger was the vice-president of engineering for Brown Industries, a company which produced truck trailers in Spokane, Washington. And it was there in the mid-1950s that Tantlinger took a call from Malcom McLean, the owner of the Pan-Atlantic Steamship, that would change the face of modern shipping and, with it, the world.

Until then, transporting cargo by ship was a labor-intensive process that involved hand-loading hundreds of thousands of individual items, packed in sacks, crates and barrels, and then unloading them all over again at the destination port for transportation to their final destination. The earliest versions of the shipping container significantly reduced the labor required, but stacking containers from different manufacturers in a secure manner was impossible because of the lack of standard designs and coupling options. This constraint severely limited their usefulness on long-distance sea passages.

Tantlinger changed all that. Hired by McLean, Tantlinger designed a set of fittings to be welded to each corner of a container, along with a locking mechanism that would allow a stack of containers to be safety secured to one another on board container ships. The fittings also enabled cranes to hook on to individual containers to quickly and safely lift them on and off ships. And the locking mechanism could also be used to secure containers to a truck chassis or railroad car, for transportation to and from the port.

Once Tantlinger’s innovation became an industry standard, the speed and safety of sea cargo transportation increased dramatically. As a result, manufacturers gained access to markets around the world, and consumers benefited from a wider array of products at lower prices. Indeed, today’s global marketplace would not have been possible without Tantlinger’s seemingly small but monumentally significant innovation.

The complete story of Tantlinger, McLean, the shipping container and their contributions to global commerce is wonderfully documented in Marc Levinson’s 2006 best-seller The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, which I highly recommend. You can read the obituary of Keith Tantlinger as published in the New York Times by going to our Resources page at www.bestpracticesforbusiness.com/Resources, and by clicking on the link under the heading “Innovation.”


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